How Paul Ingram, from Olympia, Washington, came to believe that he had committed a horrifying series of crimes - without being able to remember anything about them - forms part of a new book by Richard Ofshe, professor of social psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy and Sexual Hysteria is the latest and most powerful expose of what has become known as the 'recovered memory' movement.
Into a debate fuelled until now by subjective opinion, Ofshe, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, brings evidence that people can not only build false memories but genuinely believe in them. He will present that evidence at a seminar in London tomorrow organised by the British False Memory Society.
The recovered memory controversy began to sweep the US in the mid-Eighties. More and more adults were entering therapy, and apparently uncovering memories of forgotten childhood abuse, often leading to accusations against their horrified families. The phenomenon spread to Britain in the early Nineties, and accused parents in both countries set up support groups, claiming they were the victims of their children's false memories.
Proponents of recovered memory believe that the mind has remarkable powers of repression: that it can bury all memory of traumatic abuse, even abuse sustained over many years. They also believe that those memories are stored in the unconscious in pristine form and can be recovered, even relived, years later during therapy.
Ofshe argues that memory simply does not function in that way. It is subject to deterioration and the incorporation of unreal events. It can even, as he vividly demonstrated with Paul Ingram, create whole scenarios that never happened. His book sets out to prove that a substantial group of 'poorly trained, over-zealous or ideologically driven psychotherapists' has created a dangerous 'pseudo- science' based on a misguided belief in their ability to untap buried memories.
Paul Ingram, like most parents suddenly accused by their adult children of having abused them years before, initially adamantly denied the claim. But being a devout Evangelical Christian with a strong belief in the Devil and a reluctance to believe that his children could lie so hideously, his confidence in his own memory began to crumble. His denials changed to simply 'not remembering'. Soon, convinced that memories could be repressed, he was straining to remember what he had no recollection of.
With the help of a local clinical psychologist and his own pastor, Ingram began to fall into hypnotic trances and pray fervently. He was soon 'remembering' not only abusing his children, but belonging to a satanic cult. Police, believing they had a large-scale child- abuse ring on their hands, called in Ofshe, an expert on cult violence.
Ofshe soon suspected that Ingram's memories were imaginary and decided to confirm his suspicions by presenting him with a new, entirely fabricated allegation. Sure enough, although Ingram initially had no memory of this allegation, after a day of prayer he gave Ofshe a three-page statement describing vividly how he had forced his children to have sex in front of him.
When Ofshe confronted him, Ingram couldn't believe his 'memory' was not true. Pressed by police to plead guilty to the initial charges, his case never went to trial. It was only afterwards that he realised he had fabricated all his 'memories' and believed in them absolutely, even in the face of the strongest proof that they were false. His case is now the subject of a book called Remembering Satan, by an American journalist, Lawrence Wright.
Ofshe's methods and theories have themselves met with criticism. Valerie Sinason, a consultant child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic in London and editor of Treating Survivors of Satanic Abuse, takes issue with his experiment on Ingram. 'I don't consider it helpful at all. He was providing a model of betrayal which just highlighted Ingram's gullibility. It did not say anything about how he might be guilty, what he might have done.'
But Jean La Fontaine, whose recent report for the Government found no evidence for satanic abuse in 84 cases she investigated, says: 'Although what Ofshe did borders on the unethical, it was an extreme situation and I find his argument convincing.'
Ofshe's book, which also examines other cases in which recovered memories have been proven false, is an important landmark in a bitter debate. It offers real evidence that 'something has gone tragically wrong in certain therapy settings'. Its conclusion is sobering: for Ofshe, recovered memory therapy - like lobotomy - illustrates 'the worst of all medical or psychiatric mistakes'.
'Making Monsters' by Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters is published only in the US, by Scribners.
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